Tag: Room for Debate

A Ban on Farm-Filming?

Animal-welfare activists have scored much publicity success by releasing hidden-camera videos that they say document the mistreatment of animals at farms and slaughterhouses. Now, at the behest of farm interests, lawmakers in Iowa, Florida, and Minnesota are proposing laws seeking to criminalize the making and even possession of such videos. According to the New York Times, the Iowa bill, which has passed the lower house of the legislature in Des Moines:

would make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.”

From a libertarian perspective, there’s so much wrong with these bills that it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe with the bills’ ridiculous overbreadth and over-punitiveness—the Florida proposal, for example, apparently would ban even roadside photography of farms, and send offenders to prison for as much as thirty years. In proposing a (very likely unconstitutional) ban on even the possession of improperly produced videos, the Iowa bill, ironically or otherwise, echoes the tireless legislative efforts of some animal rights activists over the years to ban even possession of videos depicting dogfights and other instances of animal cruelty, for example.

The fact is that we already criminalize too much photo-taking. Depending on where you live, it may be unlawful to snap photos in a busy transit hub, or videotape the police officer who’s conducting an arrest; New Jersey is now considering a law that could ban much picture-taking of children in public places. To be sure, farmers and food processors also have rights deserving of respect, but the core of those rights should be the right to post a notice of “No photography on premises” and then seek civil (as distinct from criminal, in the absence of forcible entry) remedies against visitors or employees who ignore it.

Relatedly, the New York Times invited me to join a “Room for Debate” discussion today on farm animal welfare and my contribution is here. My suggestions that the federal government leave the issue to the states, and that the development of a market in more expensive but humanely raised meat is to be welcomed, brought down predictable outrage from some readers, whose comments included, “The ‘free-market’ litany is a lying crock” and, “It would be a very good thing if meat became unaffordable to most ordinary people.”

Not so relatedly, I am happy to report that the Environmental Protection Agency has finally backed off its position that dairy farmers must build elaborate containment structures to guard against milk spills on the theory that—milk containing butterfat and all—those mishaps should be legally construed as “oil spills.” I had criticized the agency’s interpretation here and here.

We Must Protect This Failing House! (And To Heck With the Kids In It)

The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” website is once again hosting a forum on education, to which I have contributed some thoughts. The topic: whether there should be federal tax credits for home schoolers.

I won’t rehash my contribution – obviously, you can read it right on the site – but I wanted to respond quickly to two other entries.

The first is from Chester Finn, president of our favorite conservative sparring partner in education, the Thomas B. Fordham Instititute. I just want to thank him for substantiating a warning I offer in my contribution: Create federal home-schooling credits and don’t be surprised if you also get requirements that home schoolers be judged on stultifying standardized tests.  It’s exactly what Finn calls for:

In return for the financial help, however, home-schooled students should be required to take state tests, just as they would do in regular school, charter school or virtual schools. And if they don’t pass those tests, either the subsidy vanishes or the kids must enroll in some sort of school with a decent academic track record.

The second person I want to respond to is former Bush II official Susan Neuman, who generally offers the right advice by warning even more starkly than I did that home schoolers demanding tax credits are making a deal with the regulatory devil. That’s fine, as is her reporting that by what indications we have “children who have been home-schooled do remarkably well, attending well-respected colleges and universities and going on to successful careers.” Unfortunately, all that was preceded by the Reductio ad Hitlerum of education debates: Smearing any effort to even the playing field between public schools and other educational arrangements as an “attempt … to destroy public education.”

I know that this will never catch on with people determined to preserve public schools’ near-monopoly on tax dollars no matter how well other arrangements actually educate children (not to mention serve taxpayers and society overall), but it is time to stop treating public education as if it is synonymous with public schools! Indeed, you demonstrate more dedication to public education if you fight to get kids access to the best education wherever it is offered than if you make your ultimate goal preserving government schools. Yet the monopoly defenders insist on smearing choice advocates as being at war with public education.

Stop with this trashy tactic. Wanna say supporters of educational choice are at war with public schools? Fine. But with public education? Sorry – if anything, they’re the ones truly fighting to get the best possible education for all.

Privacy as the Default Setting

Before I can write a blog post, I must lift my hands to type.

I say so because the default setting in life is privacy. Staying in bed maintains privacy pretty well.

Clay Shirky gives privacy a contrary treatment on the New York TimesRoom for Debate blog. We are both discussants there of the question whether the government should intervene to solve privacy issues with Facebook.

Shirky, a teacher in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at N.Y.U., writes:

There are two principal effects of the Internet on privacy. The first is to shrink personal expression to a dichotomy: public or private. Prior to the rise of digital social life, much of what we said and did was in a public environment — on the street, in a park, at a party — but was not actually public, in the sense of being widely broadcast or persistently available.

This enormous swath of personal life, as we used to call it, existed on a spectrum between public and private, and the sheer inconvenience of collecting and collating theoretically observable but practically unobserved actions was enough to keep those actions out of the public sphere.

That spectrum has now collapsed — data is either public or private, and the idea of personal utterances being observable but unobserved is becoming as quaint as an ice cream social.

“[I]t is keeping things private that requires effort,” he writes.

I think Shirky has inadvertently overstated the effects of the Internet on privacy. The dynamics he describes are definitely in play, but they exist almost exclusively in digital social life. For the rest of life, it’s still the other way around. Privacy is easy. You can just stay in bed. Pursuing publicity takes effort.

When you go out into the world, making effort to give publicity to yourself in pursuit of your wants and needs, you must trade some personal information for interaction, yes. That’s physics: photons and sound waves doing what they do. Nobody considers this a privacy problem because of our long experience with it and acculturation to it.

The online environment has similar information demands—when you go online, giving publicity to yourself in pursuit of your wants and needs, you must trade some personal information for interaction—but it has different properties: information is easier to record. Again, though, the rise of the Internet didn’t change privacy on the street, in parks, and at parties, except in the still rare instance when someone is recording and uploading information.

If we were to conduct all of life online, maybe it would be fair to say that protecting privacy takes effort. But even as a digital denizen, the majority of my experience—certainly the most important and valuable of it—is offline, face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones or time alone.

Here, privacy is the default. Nobody knows my thoughts unless I tell them. Almost never is anyone capturing the conversation in a digital format. Rarely is anyone uploading images. Facebook isn’t hoovering up the information. Doing these things would take effort that nobody is expending.

The Internet didn’t foreclose the use of real space for the conduct of life as Shirky implies by talking about offline living in the past tense. It expanded our freedom by giving us another space—a new option to use as we see fit. Declining to use that space is as normal, natural, and necessary as eating breakfast (which is impossible to do online, by the way). Maybe some of the digerati conduct their love-lives online, but this should be a disqualification for discussing the social impact of the medium for failure to understand how it fits into most people’s lives.

Privacy debates premised on the omnipresence of digital media are interesting and fun, but I don’t think they’re grounded in people’s actual experience of the world (exception!), and they tend to overstate the significance of online privacy problems.